Break the Duopoly: Why the Green Party Still Matters

A number of things have prompted this post: a lot of people have asked me for my thoughts on the Green Party of Canada leadership contest, the American election is heating up, New Brunswick is having an election, the Conservative Party of Canada just had a leadership race, and all of them have been slowly re-awakening my political attention after a much-needed rest.

Before I start, I’m not going to endorse a leadership contestant. The thoughts I share here are not reflective of the views of Shadow Cabinet, or even of the Electoral District Association of the Green Party in Northumberland – Peterborough South, though I’m using our website as a venue for them. They do reflect my personal views, and the kinds of questions I’m asking as I decide where to place my vote for a leadership contestant, and I hope they’re helpful in framing things for you as you go through that same process.

I was planning on writing a post today about the dominant rivalries in Canadian politics, so it was handy that Freakonomics Radio replayed a post from 2018 about America’s Hidden Duopoly, all about how America’s two main parties profit enormously and serve the public poorly by keeping out any serious competition. The details are different in Canada (we have five elected parties, for example) but the main thrust of it is the same, and detailed in fantastic books like Dave Meslin’s Teardown, Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes, and Elizabeth May’s Losing Confidence. It was reading Elizabeth’s book that prompted me to join the Green Party, and the arguments she makes there are why I still think that the Green Party is relevant. That shapes my view of the future of our party, and what I’m looking for in a leadership contestant.

The Place for the Green Party

Are we really asking if the Green Party is still relevant? In a recent op-ed in the Tyee, a founding member of the Green Party of BC suggests that climate action might be better served by Greens ending our pursuit of political power within the formal system and focus on place-based activism that develops community engagement and local networks that can do more to support climate action than a failed election campaign. To that I would say: that kind of activism and community building is something that we should be doing anyway, and is in no way mutually exclusive from running a Green electoral campaign. Some have argued that by staking out the “environmental territory” in the political field, we’ve prevented other parties from fully embracing environmental issues, and we would be better to work within other parties, or in a radically different way outside of electoral politics. To that I would say that Elizabeth May came to the political sphere after heading one of the biggest environmental NGOs in Canada because she felt she could be of more use in the political arena; and current leadership contestants Glenn Murray and David Merner both came to us from the Liberal Party at the provincial and federal levels, because they found that they couldn’t work within other parties and still actually accomplish what was needed.

But beyond those arguments, the Green Party is needed because we don’t engage within the duopolistic and combative relationships of the Canadian political scene. That duopoly (the Liberal/Conservative coalition that prevents other parties from gaining power through things like opposition to electoral reform, refusing to participate in debates with smaller parties, and otherwise leveraging their larger support base and “war chests” to dominate the media to the detriment of others without their resources) has framed Canadian politics since our nation was founded, and it has become so entrenched that it has taken obvious precedence over actual policy. Our two (maybe three) major parties no longer exist so much to solve the problems we face as a nation, as they do to beat each other. Here are some examples:

The Duopoly in (In)Action

Consider a carbon tax. It’s been touted by the world’s leading economists as the most cost-effective form of climate action. Back when the Liberals favoured industry regulation and cap-and-trade as the primary mechanisms for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Conservatives supported a carbon tax as the simpler, more fair and market-driven mechanism. They did it quietly, because they have an ongoing bias against taxation, but they supported it. But as soon as the Liberals embraced a carbon tax, the Conservatives were not only set against it, but they demonized it to the point of blatant propaganda campaigns that turned out to be in violation of the constitution. (And yes, I know that this was the Ontario PC Party, which is technically different from the federal Conservatives, but that’s a distinction that blurs when it’s convenient for them – it should also blur when it isn’t.) Meanwhile, the Liberals have flipped to say that regulations aren’t sufficient, and that we really should have a carbon tax – something that they didn’t support back when Stephen Harper was the one proposing it. All of this has happened over more than a decade of increasing emissions; the fight between political parties for support has prevented either party from actually doing anything serious about greenhouse gas emissions.

Or beyond a particular policy, let’s look at the big picture for the most stark example. Thousands of scientists from around the world who have devoted their lives to knowing as much as possible about our natural world have declared that we have less than a decade to reverse the trends of rising emissions, and until 2050 to get our economies to a point where we’re taking more greenhouse gases out of the air than we’re adding, a feat that economists (again, some of the smartest people in the world who are dedicated to figuring out the best way to do things) have determined will take a major overhaul of the way we live and do business. And in light of that, the biggest political stories of this year remain partisan scandals and the level of public debt. These are the exact same issues that have always dominated the political scene. In the face of the biggest challenge to survival, much less society, in human history…we carry on with partisan bickering.

Partisan bickering is a feature of the duopoly. So long as there are only two serious contenders to form government in Canada, they don’t need to actually address serious issues in order to achieve power. It’s much easier to win by casting aspersions on the other party and paying lip service to major issues than it is to take on an ambitious policy shift that might backfire. We need a party that can break the duopoly, that won’t try for power by playing the same game. The NDP seems to have been trying to go mainstream by competing with the big parties on their own terms. It’s backfired; they have more seats that us, but they seem to have lost their raison d’etre. Greens should not make the same mistake. We need to break the duopoly by doing what we’ve always done: refusing to participate in the negative politics that degrade our institutions, and instead actually addressing the major issues with concrete policy proposals that reflect the best advice of the experts in order to attempt to actually do something.

The Ideological Conflict

The Liberal/Conservative duopoly is its own beast, but for all of its existence it’s been rooted in the left/right ideological divide that, starting in the late 19th century, was largely defined by two dominant ideologies: socialism and capitalism. While North America has always had a market economy, our systems have varied over the years in terms of our approach to the level of economic redistribution and regulation of industry. The term “socialist” has been associated with Soviet Communism since the 1950’s; outgoing Conservative leader Andrew Scheer made this association in his farewell speech just a few weeks ago, trying to pin it to the governing Liberals.

In the US, where the “red scare” and the demonization of socialism has been the worst, there’s been a recent trend toward owning the term, with “Democratic Socialists” like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gaining a significant following for proposing bold policies – often the same policies that the Green Party of Canada has been promoting for years. In light of this, there are two contestants in the Green Party of Canada’s leadership race who are pushing for the Green Party to explicitly embrace the “socialist” terminology. This is a mistake.

Not only would embracing socialist ideology and terminology alienate half the population or more, but it would do so by inserting us into the 19th century conflict that is the basis of the duopoly. We wouldn’t be considerably changing our policies: we already support a Guaranteed Livable Income, eliminating tuition, increasing access to childcare, a shorter work week, universal pharmacare and mental healthcare, and more. The “socialist” policies of these two leadership contestants are largely already in our policy platform, and have been for years – even as many called us “Tories on bikes” because some of our other policies were friendly to centrists and conservatives. We currently have to resist the urge everyone seems to have to insert us into the duopoly; we should certainly not make it easier for them to do so by doing it ourselves.

The Way Forward for the Green Party

I haven’t picked my favourite leadership contestants, and won’t be personally endorsing anyone, but I will share with you what I’m looking for.

We need someone who is committed to keeping us outside of the intractable conflict of socialists vs capitalists. Both of those ideologies are incredibly outdated. It’s the 21st century, not a good time to fight the ideological battles of the late 19th century.

We need someone who is likewise committed to keeping us out of the duopoly, in the sense of being committed to not adopting the combative, controlling, and cynical approaches of the big parties. We won’t win on their terms, and if we did manage it, I wouldn’t like what we would have to become to do it. The strength of the Green Party is that we focus on solving problems – the very thing political parties are supposed to do, but that the duopoly prevents them from doing effectively.

We need someone who can communicate not just policies, but also values – and to do it in a way that Canadians haven’t seen from us before. There are a lot of tired environmentalist tropes that we have to campaign against every time we knock on doors, and we spend half of our time telling people what we aren’t (no, we don’t want to make everyone become vegan luddites; no, we aren’t all about weed; no, we don’t have a single-issue platform; etc). We need a bold new vision of the party itself, to help people get to know who we are and what we value as well as the policies and outcomes we’re looking for.

We need someone who can support the internal management of the party, so that our electoral district associations can be developed into organizations with an ongoing presence in the community rather than a skeleton crew that valiantly tries to pull together a campaign team every four years. Then we will not only be more election-ready, but we will be able to engage in the kind of grassroots organization and activism from which the Green Party grew in the first place without compromising our political credibility. We need someone who can help us thread that needle of balancing activism and politics proper, and help us be more organized on both fronts.

And frankly, we need someone who is a bit of a palate cleanser. Elizabeth May was leader for long enough to become central to the Green Party of Canada’s brand, and the next leader will be constantly compared to her. Whether you love her or hate her, she’s incomparable – and most people love her. This leader needs to be able to stand apart from Elizabeth, start the party down a new path, and prepare for their successor.

Posted in Blog, Green Party of Canada.

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